Robert B.Simpson: Gunshot echoes

July 13, 2014 

One hundred years ago last month, as you no doubt are well aware, a Serbian teenager named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Princess Sophia, on a street in Sarajevo. The assassination of the Archduke was the match that lit the fuse that set off World War I. The war caused huge loss of life, major changes in the conduct of warfare, and massive dislocations to the social and political structure of much of the world. It also managed to prepare and fertilize the seedbed for World War II.

A world away from Sarajevo, an American teenager just one year younger than Princip would have had no idea of the impact that deadly pistol shot would have upon his own life. A North Carolina farm boy, he would enter the Army a few years later to serve, as Private W.C. Simpson, in what became known as "the Great War." Years later still, I would be born as his middle child. And so I have spent a good bit of thought on the way key events affect not just nations and society at large, but also individual lives far in the future.

My dad, in the familiar tradition of American citizen-soldiers throughout our history, professed to dislike everything about the Army. He jokingly claimed that, having once signed his name to enter the service, it was years before he could again bring himself to sign anything, even a church Sunday School roll. But in a primitive farmhouse with no modern conveniences, my siblings and I got much of our entertainment at night from my dad's reminiscing about his life. And many of his narratives had to do with his time in the Army. He sang the soldier versions of popular World War I songs, like "Mademoiselle from Armentieres," and "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding." I learned the words to the Army's bugle calls from him, sang them to my own children, and now my grandsons are sometimes awakened by their mother singing "Reveille" to them. During the 1942 Carolina maneuvers, my dad eagerly welcomed World War II soldiers to our house for meals.

Association with these soldiers added to my own interest in military service. Given my dad's stories and what I saw all around me at that impressionable age, I thought Army life must be about the most colorful and exciting life there was. I was not at all sure I could measure up to it, but the possibility lingered always in the back of my mind. I would eventually decide to attempt it and have never regretted that decision.

Long after my father's death, I read for the first time an old clipping of something he'd written and sent to the newspaper while preparing to go overseas to France. I was surprised both by the eloquence and clarity of writing from a man with only a few years of formal education and who'd written his school lessons on a slate, and also by his patriotic fervor and pride in serving. So much for the guy who so loathed the Army that he was shy of signing his name thereafter.

There are many influences on the choices we make and the courses we follow, and I am by no means giving Gavrilo Princip sole credit for my having been able to live a life that was, to me, eminently fulfilling. No one event was the key, even an event so horrendous as a political assassination that changed the world. To attribute my own small, personal path to something so large would be not only a huge stretch but an illusion of individual significance that even my most egotistical dreams could not entertain. Yet I keep returning to the thought that, had the ardent nationalist, Princip, not fired that shot, World War I might not have happened in the way it did. And World War II might not have sprung from its bitter ashes. And my father, not having gone to France to serve in the Great War, would have had no Army stories to tell. And I might never have chosen an Army career, married a Columbus, Georgia, lady, and eventually settled here permanently. Maybe that would not have been much of a loss for the Army or Columbus, or even for the lady, but it would certainly have been a huge loss for me.

If I could bring myself to be courteous to an assassin, I'd have to say, "Thanks, Gavrilo."

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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